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My cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci
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My cat Yugoslavia (2015)

by Pajtim Statovci

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Pajtim Statovci’s debut novel bounces back and forth between Soviet-era Yugoslavia and modern-day Finland. In 1988, Emine, a teenage Albanian girl marries Bajram, a handsome and mysterious man whom she hardly knows, and embarks on a life of isolation and hardship, while in 2016, her son Bekim encounters bigotry and loneliness as a young gay Muslim searching for human connection in Finland, his adopted home.

I majored in English Lit in college and I enjoy reading literary fiction that requires a certain level of analysis. I’m also a big fan of contemporary LGBTQ fiction, so My Cat Yugoslavia seemed ideally suited to my taste. The book is well written, the characters are sharply defined and both storylines are relatively involving. I particularly enjoyed reading about Emine’s life and the archaic traditions of her wedding and subsequent married life. Despite being so different than modern relationships in the West, the author was able to present her situation in a way that made it easy to relate to her and even to understand Bajram to some degree, despite his domineering, and often outright brutal, behavior. Their story was much more straightforward and concrete than Bekim’s, which is full of dense, surreal symbolism, much of which was lost on me.

Despite a lifelong fear of snakes Bekim keeps a pet boa constrictor that he allows to roam freely around his apartment. The cat (which is named Yugoslavia in the book’s title but not in the story itself) is not a pet, but a bar patron who ends up living in the young man’s apartment, criticizing him relentlessly, trashing the place and generally terrorizing him. On some level, I understood that the snake and the cat represented things from the boy’s past or perhaps parts of his psyche, but for
the life of me I was unable to make sense of it.

Overall, I found this novel to be engaging on a surface level, but felt much of the deeper meaning went over my head. The reviews from Finland are unanimously glowing and it’s won some prestigious literary awards, so I can’t help but wonder if some blame falls on the translation. ( )
  blakefraina | Apr 21, 2017 |
I love it when a sentence takes an unexpected turn, surprising and delighting me. That happened early in Pajtim Statovci’s My Cat Yugoslavia. Bekim, a young Albanian Kosovar who lives in exile in Finland is at a gay bar and observing a striking black and white striped cat who moves from one side of the room to the other, up on his hind legs to chat, balancing the gift of his attention among his acquaintance. “Then the cat noticed me, he started smiling at me and I started smiling at him, then he raised his front paw to the top button of his shirt, unbuttoned it, and began walking toward me.” It was there that I fell in love with this book.

The story alternates perspective from Bekim, a contemporary gay man living in Helsinki who finds hookups on the internet, and Emine, his mother, a young Albanian Kosovar who is eagerly anticipating her marriage. Their stories progress through their lives, Emine’s story moves from her youthful optimism to the devastating disappointment of her wedding night and a long, brutal marriage within which she raised five children while subsuming everything that is herself in obedience to an erratic, brutal husband. Bekim’s story begins soon after he rejects his family who are living in Finland as refugees.His story is one of self-discovery, of finding out what matters, of going back to Kosovo and finding his own capacity for love.

This book is odd, in a way, so much action in the background, so little in the foreground. There is so much happening in their world, the death of Tito on Emine’s wedding day, the rise of Melosevic, the repression of Albanians in Prishtina, the Bosnian conflict, the war in Kosovo. The family moving from the country to Prishtina to Helsinki. But the action is external. Within the inner lives of our two protagonists, progress is achingly slow. Emine spends more than twenty years just cleaning, cooking, and raising children…a monotony of days punctuated by her husband’s rages. Bekim, too, drifts through life, seeking love but sabotaging it, believing that cat who seemed to curse him, telling him he will never be loved.

I liked My Cat Yugoslavia very much. I liked the honest portrayal of the frustration of being a refugee, that mixture of shame and embarrassment for being different and the anger that this new society they live in does not see them as individuals. I felt such compassion for Emine whose cultural mores left her no alternatives but who, through time, began to see her own path forward. I liked the parallels between Helsinki and Kosovo, the cat and snake so important in both locations.

The father, Bajram, was only perceived from without, by his wife and his son…and he remains a cipher. He inspired love and loathing in his family. Was he mentally ill, or was he simply a brute? Was he a religious zealot or disturbed? We don't know. We never know why he told his son he was dying of cancer, we just know he did and that he lied to his son. But the why of Bajram remains a mystery….that’s okay. This is not his story, it’s the story of his wife and son…and their journey to find themselves.

My Cat Yugoslavia will be released April 18th, I was granted an e-galley for review by publisher Knopf Doubleday through Edelweiss.

★★★★
http://tonstantweaderreviews.wordpress.com/2017/04/05/9781101871829/ ( )
  Tonstant.Weader | Apr 5, 2017 |
I honestly don’t know how to review this book. There are two story lines. One is told by Emine, a young Muslim girl in Yugoslavia. The other line is told by her son, Bekim. Emine’s story is horrifying, but it’s realistic. When a young man notices her on the road, he requests her hand in marriage- basically, his family buys her with new clothing for her family, food, jewelry, and enough money to finish building their house. In installments, we follow her wedding and life with him through the years, including the move to Finland. While her life was horrible, I enjoyed reading her narrative and learning about life in her country and as a refugee in Finland.

The other narrative, her son’s, didn’t make a lot of sense to me. On one hand, we have a realistic tale of a very lonely young gay man, living alone with a boa constrictor, which roams the apartment freely, despite Bekim being afraid of snakes. We see how he interacts with other men, the problems with his father, and how he returns to Yugoslavia after a number of years. But along with this, we see him in a club, meeting a cat who talks, wears human clothing, smokes, and seems at one point to be tall enough to sit at a table like a human and then next minute he’s small enough to pick up. He’s also a total jerk (I know, many people would say all cats are jerks, whether they can talk or not) who is a total slob as well as emotionally abusive. My brain couldn’t manage to connect these events with the rest of Bekim’s life. I love magical realism, but I can usually make connections to the rest of the story with them. I don’t know if it was because this work was translated, or if I’m just not getting it.

In the end, it was a hard story to read because the protagonist’s lives were not easy- especially Emine’s. But there is hope even in such conditions, and I am glad I read this. ( )
  lauriebrown54 | Mar 17, 2017 |
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Epigraph
In order to see a picture of the town and understand it and its relation to the bridge clearly, it must be said that there was another bridge in the town and another river.

-Ivor Andrić, 'The bridge on the Drina' translated by Lovett F Edwards
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"Already an international sensation: a debut novel that tells a love story set in two countries in two radically different moments in time, bringing together a young man, his mother, a boa constrictor, and one capricious cat. In 1980s Yugoslavia, a young Muslim girl is married off to a man she hardly knows, but what was meant to be a happy match goes quickly wrong. Soon thereafter her country is torn apart by war and she and her family flee. Years later, her son, Bekim, grows up a social outcast in present day Finland, not just an immigrant in a country suspicious of foreigners, but a gay man in an unaccepting society. Aside from casual hookups, his only friend is a boa constrictor whom, improbably--he is terrified of snakes--he lets roam his apartment. But during a visit to a gay bar, Bekim meets a talking cat who moves in with him and his snake. It is this witty, charming, manipulative creature who starts Bekim on a journey back to Kosovo to confront his demons, and make sense of the magical, cruel, incredible history of his family. And it is this that, in turn, enables him finally, to open himself to true love--which he will find in the most unexpected place."--
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